Skip to content

“Mirror, Mirror…”: Strategies for Helping Students in Distress

“Mirror, Mirror…”: Strategies for Helping Students in Distress

EACE Blog contribution by Dr. Claire Klieger, Sr. Associate Director, Career Services at University of Pennsylvania

mirror-mirrorIn our roles as career advisors, we may encounter students who are stressed or anxious. As you we all know, there is much about the career exploration or search process that can be overwhelming or dovetail with other pretty serious things going on in a student’s life. I recently attended a training on how to effectively identify and respond to students in distress. It was excellent overall but the most useful strategy I gained from it is a technique about disarming individuals who are upset (whether that’s anger/frustration, anxiety or pain) that I’d like to share.

As career advisors we are naturally wired to help, to want to fix the problem by offering useful suggestions or resources. However, when a student is experiencing an elevated level of emotion, what I learned is that this is actually counterproductive. Instead, we will be better served to hold back on providing advice and alternatively, act more like a mirror and take time to reflect back to the students what we are hearing. This doesn’t mean just repeating what the individual said, but rather interpreting it and empathizing with the student, which will help them to feel heard, and understood, or in other words, “seen” in the way they see themselves. So, for example, if a student says “It’s just weeks from graduation and I am completely freaking out about not having a job!,” your response could be “ I can understand how it can feel scary not to know what is coming next.” If the technique works, the response from the student should be “Yeah, exactly! And…” With each “reflection” of the student’s statements, you will get the individual to open up. This process thereby builds trust and encourages them to offer you more information that could help you better advise them. In addition, it gives them the opportunity to vent their feelings so that they are in a better place to hear your suggestions when you give them.

Of course, this strategy isn’t required in all advising situations. If a student has a straightforward question like “So, I was hoping you could critique my resume?” it will be frustrating to hear “Oh, you’d like to take advantage of our resume critiquing service?” Worse, it will imply that you’re not listening or perhaps just a little slow. However, in any situation with elevated emotions, the strategy of reflecting back should diffuse tension and make for a more productive meeting.

Here are some other tips when “reflecting”:

  • Avoid personal comparisons—“I have a story that will make you feel better. When I was looking for a job it took me nine months!”
  • Don’t minimize their feelings—“It’s not so bad. Last year’s graduating class had it way worse.”
  • Reflect without the jargon – there has been enough out there regarding the importance of using “I” statements and other strategy that it can make someone feel like you are just using a technique. How many times have you heard, “What I hear you saying is…”? Just put what they are saying into your own words.
  • Empathize but don’t elevate – “Yes, you should be freaking out!” is too much empathy and only going to add to the level of stress.
  • Try to stay calm– “Wow, I’m stressed for you!,” is not going to help the situation. Even in when instances when you may hear very upsetting details, try to keep a clear head.
  • Summarize before offering advice – When the student seems to have run out of steam, that’s the time to summarize what all his or her concerns are and then if you get the green light, “Yeah, exactly,” (but without the “and”) you can move on to making suggestions.

Finally, the really nice thing about this strategy is should work equally well with when anyone close to you (colleague, significant other etc.) wanting to vent!

Claire Klieger

Claire Klieger

Dr. Claire Klieger is a Senior Associate Director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania where she advises undergraduate students in arts and sciences. She is particularly interested in helping liberal arts students identify and market their transferable skills as well as making students at Penn aware of the diverse array of offerings and resources that Career Services has to offer. In this regard, Claire has presented at EACE and other conferences on using technology to more effectively connect with students and changing student perceptions of Career Centers.  Claire has a bachelor’s degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Virginia (go Hoos!) and earned her doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania. She spent her formative years living abroad in the Middle East and North Africa and still loves to travel when she can.

%d bloggers like this: